Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.
Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.
It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:
My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”
Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.
My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.
In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.
The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.
Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.
On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.
The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.
That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.